Carolyn Boyd: Deciphering the Oldest American “Book”

White Shaman Mural

White Shaman Mural

I am delighted to have Dr. Carolyn E. Boyd, founder of the Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center, with us today. Dr. Boyd has spent the last 25 years studying the rock art paintings of the Lower Pecos region in Texas. The images painted on the canyon walls along the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Texas, are over 4,000 years old. Dr. Boyd and Shumla have recently been featured in Discover Magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Highways and others.

Dr. Carolyn E. Boyd

Dr. Carolyn E. Boyd

Hello, Carolyn. Tell us a little about these ancient paintings.

 Hello Mary, and thank you for inviting me to share with your readers about the rock art of the Lower Pecos!

The region is home to at least three categories of prehistoric rock paintings—Pecos River, Red Linear, and Red Monochrome. All three are spectacular, but it is the Pecos River style that is ranked among the top bodies of prehistoric art in the world. Yes, right here in Texas we have paintings that are on par with the famous European Paleolithic cave art of Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira. The renowned French archaeologist Dr. Jean Clottes has declared that Pecos River rock art is second to none in the world. Pretty impressive!

What makes these paintings so remarkable is their complexity and compositional intricacy. Lower Pecos artists used earth colors to create murals that are extraordinary in the level of skill required to produce them, as well as sheer size. Some of the panels are huge, spanning over 100 feet in length and 30 feet in height. Others are very small and tucked away in secluded alcoves. There are more than 200 rockshelters north of the Rio Grande containing Pecos River style imagery. South of the border in Mexico there are likely that many or perhaps more.

Production of the massive murals was no small undertaking. Significant time and effort went into planning the composition, obtaining resources to make paint, creating the artist’s tools, constructing scaffolds or ladders, not to mention the rituals that likely accompanied each step in the process.

Halo Shelter Anthropomorphs

Halo Shelter Anthropomorphs

Pictographic elements in these ancient murals include anthropomorphs (humanlike), zoomorphs (animal-like), a wide range of geometric imagery, and enigmatic figures that don’t fit neatly into any of the other categories. Anthropomorphs are the most frequently depicted and average in size between 3 to 7 feet. However, sometimes they are huge, standing more than 25 feet tall! Others are so tiny they could fit in your pocket.

These fascinating figures are elaborately painted in red, yellow, black, and white. Their bodies are adorned with various accoutrements, such as headdresses, wrist and elbow adornments, waist tassels, and clusters of feathers at the hip. Often they are portrayed holding paraphernalia, such as atlatls, darts, staffs, and rabbit sticks.

Animals are also represented in the paintings. Deer are depicted with antlers, tails, hooves and dew claws, and at other times with only antlers or hooves. Felines tend to be painted larger than life. A few are massive, measuring over eight feet from the tip of their tail to the tip of their nose. Birds are usually small and portrayed with their wings outstretched. Some imagery resembles insects, such as caterpillars, dragonflies, and moths or butterflies. Sinuous, snake-like figures are also portrayed. One of my favorites is a horned serpent spanning 20 feet in length.

What is important about this rock art?

The murals of the Lower Pecos represent some of the oldest known ‘books’ in North America. For decades archaeologists thought these complex murals represented numerous painting episodes performed by different artists over hundreds or even thousands of years. We now know they are not a random collection of images, but compositions. As with words on a page, every image was intentionally placed. They are visual texts communicating a narrative by means of a graphic vocabulary.

Although they aren’t books in the literal sense of the word with multiple pages bound together by a hinge along one side, they do tell a story. The method of reading that story was handed down from generation to generation, such that anyone who understood the grammar could read the paintings. Then, at some point in time, everyone with that special knowledge moved on and the message of the art went into a very long period of dormancy. Today, however, we are rediscovering how to read these ancient texts and what we are learning is rewriting the prehistory of North America.

What do you think the images mean?

 Early interpretations suggested Pecos River style imagery represented hunting cults and

Panther Cave at Seminole Canyon State Park

Panther Cave at Seminole Canyon State Park

manifestations of shamanic visions. Many still adhere to the idea that the striking Pecos River style anthropomorphs represent shamans. Others continue to argue the meaning of the art was lost with the people who produced it. But the meaning is far from lost and vastly more complex than any prior explanations.

Though the artists are gone, the myths and belief systems of the hunter-gatherers who produced the murals have remained over the centuries. With stunning resilience, their beliefs have endured from some point in the distant past to shape the ideological universe of Native America into the present. Indeed, it was the symbolic world of foragers that shaped the ideological universe of later Mesoamerican agriculturalists.

The murals exquisitely detail sophisticated cosmological and mythological concepts traditionally associated with complex agricultural societies in Mesoamerica. The art brought life to the mythology, and the mythology aided in the spiritual development of the participants, helped establish community, and was used as a teaching device for understanding natural law.

However, one must keep in mind that the imagery was not strictly visual communication, but, rather, a form of visual-verbal communication. Any meaningful discussion of the significance of the rock art should take into consideration the oral traditions and the performances that accompanied it. As with the pre-Columbian codices, the imagery was likely read aloud and explained to onlookers who participated in the ceremony through ritual offerings, music, singing, chanting, and dance. This performance would have greatly increased the ritual significance of the paintings. Through ritual performance, actions that were performed by gods at the beginning of time were not only commemorated, but repeated. Thus, human action in the present re-created events of the past.

Why should people today care?

I get asked that question often. Sometimes I find it helps to explain it this way. Imagine what you would do if someone delicately placed in your hands a well-worn, extremely fragile text and said “this is one of the oldest books in North America.” What would you do? Would you consider it important enough to take care of? What lengths would you go to preserve it?

The Lower Pecos is a library full of 4,000 year-old manuscripts containing information that is transforming our understanding of North American prehistory, of hunter-gatherers, the tenacity of myth, the origin and dissemination of languages, the function of art in prehistory, and so very much more. Sadly, we are losing these ancient texts at an alarming rate to vandalism, floods, and a changing climate.

What does the Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center do?

Shumla is a not-for-profit organization working to preserve and share the ‘library’ of painted texts

On the Shumla campus

On the Shumla campus

and the information they hold through documentation, research, stewardship and education. We are literally in a race against time to save these visual texts. I encourage you to visit our website (www.shumla.org), check us out on Facebook, and sign up for our eNews to learn more! And please, donate today to join us in our important work in the Lower Pecos.

I understand you have a new book coming out. Tell us about it.

 Yes, I do! The book is titled “The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative in the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos” and it is being published by the University of Texas Press. It will be released this time next year.

In this book, I and my collaborator, Kim Cox, provide a detailed interpretation of the WhiteShaman mural, the most famous rock art panel in the Lower Pecos and one of the most famous in the world. We walk the reader down a twenty-two-year path of discovery to find that the mural tells a story of the birth of the sun and the beginning of time. Patterns in the rock art equate, in striking detail, to the mythologies of Uto-Aztecan speaking peoples, including the ancient Aztec and the present-day Huichol. The finding of such a significant thumbprint of Mesoamerican culture in the rock art demonstrates that a shared ideological universe was already firmly established among foragers living in the Lower Pecos during the Archaic. Codified on a canyon wall in Texas thousands of years ago, the White Shaman mural may represent the oldest pictorial creation narrative in North America.

Wow! That’s exciting. Thank you so much for sharing with us today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jack and Missy Harrington: Landowners and Benefactors

Jack and Missy Harrington

Jack and Missy Harrington

I’m glad to welcome Jack and Missy Harrington from Comstock, Texas, to the blog today. They have lived in the Lower Pecos area all their lives, maintaining family ranches and contributing to the small town of Comstock in many ways.  Comstock is located 29 miles west of Del Rio, Texas, near the Rio Grande, in a region known for rock art that is thousands of years old. The town was founded in 1882 when the railroad built a station there. Currently the town has a population of 223.

Thanks for being with us today.  How did your family get to Comstock?  Missy: My great-grandfather bought the land sight unseen because he was told it had rivers on three sides, about 9000 acres. They lived in Mexico at the time. Five of their kids died of smallpox when little. When the two girls got older the family moved across the river to the property. They didn’t know there were steep cliffs to get to all the

Paintings of Painted Shelter rock art by Forrest Kirkland

Paintings of Painted Shelter rock art by Forrest Kirkland

water, and that the cows couldn’t get to it!  Grandmother didn’t want to live out on the ranch with a baby, so they got a house in the town of Comstock.

Tell me about growing up here. What did you think of the rock art?  Missy: I was born and  raised in Comstock, but Jack was from Del Rio. We used to have picnics at Painted Shelter [ on grandfather’s property], and I thought everybody had paintings on the wall. Kids could play in the water in the creek there, and the grown ups liked the deeper holes.  I wish I had known more about the rock art when I was a kid. The rock art’s not gonna last for ever. It makes sense to educate people about it. I remember when they built Seminole Canyon State Park. My family owned that property. I remember my grandmother was so mad cause the state wanted it so they could “take care of it.” Who did they think had

Harrington Campus pavillion at Shumla School, near Comstock, Texas

Harrington Campus pavilion at Shumla School, near Comstock, Texas

been taking care of it for 100 years?

A few years ago you donated land to the Shumla School, an outdoor experiential school and research center for rock art and archaeology run by Dr. Carolyn Boyd.  Yes, now they have the Harrington campus. After hearing Carolyn’s ideas to have a school, we decided why not? We deeded about 70 acres to Shumla as a non-profit about 1998. We had two field experiences for teachers before we had any facilities of any kind. They used portable showers in plastic bags. The pavilion and bath house were built first.  Bath house finished the Friday before the Monday.  Immediately we had a teacher training for all Comstock teachers the end of August. It was 112 degrees.  The workshop impressed the teachers for years. We’ve both worked with Shumla ever since.   Now they do programs for kids–all the Comstock and Del Rio kids have come–and for teachers. Each spring Carolyn holds a rock art workshop for adults. This past spring the Harrington campus was used by Dr. Steve Black for his Ancient Southwest Texas Project through Texas State University.

How did you and Jack meet? Missy: He used to date my neighbor. But he decided to check around for other quail. The way it was, Comstock girls had to date Comstock boys, but not the other way around. I broke out of that. We started going together when I was a junior in high school, and now we’ve been married 47 years.

Congratulations! That’s a pretty good record!  You went to college in San Antonio, right Missy? I went to Incarnate Word San Antonio. My degree is in biology, with minors in chemistry and math. I had a job lined up in research. I didn’t plan to teach school. But we decided to move back, and the only job was teaching school in Del Rio. I’d never seen a grade book before in my life. But I taught 31 years all together, 3 in Del Rio, 28 in Comstock.

Comstock ISD

Comstock ISD

Tell me about teaching school.  Missy: Well, I went to school in Comstock, K-12. We had about 90 kids back then.  We had 125 when I taught, a lot of small classes, maybe one or two kids. Sometimes 20.  We had three computers Apple 11e . You wear a lot of hats in a small school. I taught every science from 6th grade  to 12th grade. Now there are about 200 kids. One day a boy was swinging a dead rattlesnake around his head scaring the girls. I made him throw it away, and he coiled it in the trash can to scare the janitor.

Jack, you were on the Comstock ISD school board for 20 years. Yes,  I have a soft spot in my heart about school. It’s remarkable what some of these kids can do. This year we were ninth overall in UIL in Division 1A, and tied for first in physics. Diego Fausett, did that. His coach is Dr. Phil Dering, who teaches science in Comstock now, instead of Missy. Nobody falls through the cracks in Comstock ISD. Class size capped at 18. More

Students from Comstock ISD in Shumla Scholars program  work with Ancient South West Texas Project in Spring, 2014

Students from Comstock ISD in Shumla Scholars program work with Ancient Southwest Texas Project in Spring, 2014

individualized, one on one. Good teachers. Lot of home-grown teachers. Strong culture of the school. Many teachers were Missy’s students. K-12 intermingle. It’s good cause the little kids look up to the older one, and older ones model good behavior. They’re sisters and brothers. Older kids can work with the younger ones. Everybody takes care of everybody. The kids are safe and they know they are. Comstock ISD has over 2000 sq. miles, but only 50-60 kids live in CISD. The rest come from Del Rio. Three busses bring them. Kids have to apply to come to Comstock. They can’t have bad grades, failed tests, or bad behavior. If they break the rules they go home. We don’t compromise. We set standards and we hold ’em. Missy: I planted the cottonwood trees when I was a freshmen in high school. There were only two trees on campus when I was in school. Our principal bought about 11 trees. Now there are about 40 trees and lots of grass.

You were also with the volunteer fire department, right Jack?  I was a volunteer with the fire dept. for 40 years. There was a fire around Juno [ now a ghost town]  in the 1990s burned over 20,000 acres, took about two weeks to put out.  This spring there was one near Pandale, then around Juno too. Burn bans are serious. Forest service came in for this one, and another big crew came to cook and set up a kitchen. They had a huge mobile kitchen and 18-wheelers full of food, and big refrigerated trucks. There were over 300 fireman. We served dinner in the school cafeteria. About 6 of these volunteers and 5-6 of us local Comstock folks.  We cooked breakfast, made sandwiches for lunch, and made dinner at night. They would come at daylight.  Volunteers came from everywhere:Wisconsin, Colorado, Montana, California, fireman from everywhere. The kindergarten kids made laminated placemats for the firemen. The men took them home with them.

What makes Comstock a good place to live? Missy:  It’s nice and quiet. We don’t even have a key to the house. We’ve never locked the house, even when I read Helter Skelter. It’s just a different way of life. We grocery shop like a rancher, go to town once a week. The two custodians at school across the street keep their soda water in our refrig on the breezeway. It’s peaceful. No traffic. Might have to worry about a cow or two on the road, though.

Thank you both for talking with us today! As of this publication date,  Jack and Missy are in Houston awaiting the call for a  medical procedure. Best wishes, Smilin’ Jack! We wish you only good things!

Life in a Desert Archaeology Camp

Early evening sky

Early evening sky

The Ancient Southwest Texas Project from Texas State University has posted their weekly updates on the Eagle Nest Canyon excavation, ongoing in Spring 2014, on their blog at www.aswtp.wordpress.com.  Click the link below to check their progress.

A STEP BACK IN TIME – LIVING AT SHUMLA CAMPUS.

via A STEP BACK IN TIME – LIVING AT SHUMLA CAMPUS.

Teddy Stickney, Rock Art Pioneer

The intrepid Teddy Stickney

The intrepid Teddy Stickney

I am happy to welcome Teddy Stickney as my guest today.  Teddy has been recording rock art in Texas for almost 25 years and helped develop the early guidelines for this task.

Thanks for being with us today, Teddy.  How did you first become interested in rock art?    I became aware of rock art when I was about 6 years old.  There was a large Navajo kachina incised in the sand stone wall in a canyon across the San Juan river from my Dad’s property in New Mexico.

You are an official archaeology steward for the Texas Historical Commission. 

Teddy recording rock art

Teddy recording rock art

What does that entail?  I’ve been a volunteer steward for my area in West Texas for 21 years. Stewards monitor archaeological resources for the THC.   For example, the THC may want a certain area to be surveyed for archaeological evidence. We volunteer to investigate these sites. We also keep an eye on construction sites that may be near archaeological resources, and try to get to know any arrowhead collectors in the region. We act as additional eyes and eyes for the historical commission. There is so much territory to cover, they just can’t do it all.

I know you’ve been part of a number of field schools and recording projects.  What are some of your most memorable ones?  One of the best ones for me was during the Texas Archeological Society’s field school near Dolan Springs on the Devil’s River in 1989. The survey crews were out finding new rock art, so we concluded that we were going to have many more sessions of recording on this property.  Our group formulated guidelines for recording that we used for at least the next 18 months during these sessions.

Have you done much travelling outside Texas as part of your rock art interest?

Taking exact measurements

Taking exact measurements

Before I got involved in Texas I had worked with Col. James Bain in New Mexico, who was the petroglyph curator for the Museum of New Mexico. I also worked with Jane Kolber who ran rock art field schools in Arizona and did some work in Utah.  So I had had some experience with recording rock art before the field in 1989.  Also Paul Steed, who wrote The Rock Art of Chaco Canyon (1980), was in the rock art crew for the 1989 field school.  Paul had world experience in photographing.

Is there any particular type of rock art you are especially interested in?    I don’t think there is any type of rock art that I like better than another. I think all of it is very important because it is record of the culture. Rock art tells a story of the activities of the culture, the people’s daily routine, the animals around them, and so on.

Tell us about any mishaps or adventures you’ve had in your rock art exploration. 

Teddy examines abstract figures

Teddy examines ancient painting

Well, one time we were camping in the Texas Panhandle in March, and it was so cold the water in the coffee pot froze. Then there was walking the high ledge to Curly Tail Panther shelter overlooking the Devil’s River in the Lower Pecos. The bad part was that once I got there, I realized I had to walk it again to get out!  Then there’s hiking in a rough canyon of Big Bend State Park with heavy backpacks searching for a site in 105 temperatures. Once I walked about six miles on a very worn trail near the Rio Grande and found a recent camp site with a fire pit and modern trash. I figure it was a trail used by illegal immigrants, but I didn’t see anybody.

What are some of the big questions that still interest you about rock art?  I would love to talk with one of the artists that painted or incised art on a wall.  I’d love to hear their thoughts on their art. What did the site location mean to them? I’m interested in how their mixed their paint and managed all the painting. Did one person do it or was it done as a group?

 What advice would you give someone who wanted to get involved in archaeology or learning about rock art?  Join the Texas Archeological Society, participate in a field school, and research rock art on the internet.

Bulls and Stags Meet in Houston

The Stags at Lascaux

The Stags at Lascaux France, are Reproduced for Houston Exhibit

I recently visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see the Lascaux cave paintings exhibit ( http://www.hmns.org/index.php?option=com_content&id=651&Itemid=683).  The exhibit remains in Houston until March 23, 2014, so get your tickets online now and plan a trip!

People like these lived near Lascaux 18,000 years ago.

People like these lived near Lascaux, France, 18,000 years ago.

Discovered in 1940 in the limestone cliffs of France, the underground caves at Lascaux are the site of beautiful realistic art showing ancient oxen, horses, stags, and other animals in a rich polychrome tapestry, about 15 meters underground. The paintings were made approximately 18,000 years ago by the Magdalenian people.

About a million people toured the caves from 1940-1963, causing great deterioration of the paintings from the carbon dioxide in visitors’ breath. The caves were then closed while an exact replica was built nearby. It took over 11 years to reproduce the paintings with painstaking accuracy. Craftsmen reproduced every bump and rough spot on the surface of the cave walls before Monique Peytral recreated the paintings, using a variety of methods.  The replica is known as Lascaux 2 and is a major attraction today.

Room of the Bulls at Lascaux

Room of the Bulls at Lascaux

The exhibit in Houston features a fascinating 3D virtual tour of the caves, scale models, and exact replicas of five major panels in the caves.  Various short videos and other materials enhance visitor knowledge.

Tickets cost $20-25.00, can be purchased online, and are timed so that crowds are not too large.  It takes about two hours to see the complete exhibit, reading everything, etc. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to Lascaux. I was thoroughly fascinated by the exhibit, and I hope you get a chance to go if you are in the Houston area.

Hiking Presa Canyon

Now that cooler weather has arrived, some of you may be thinking of hiking in the desert and canyons of the Lower Pecos region of south Texas. Wonderful idea!  I had the privilege of taking the guided hike to Presa Canyon last spring.  The temperature was only forecast to be 95 degrees Farenheit, so the tour was a go. If it’s more than 100 F, they don’t take groups into the canyon, for good reason.  I promised you then that I would write more about it ( see my post of March 18, 2013), but it has taken me awhile to get up the guts.

Rock Art in Black Cave

Rock Art in Black Cave

The hike was about eight hours, four hours in to Black Cave, and four hours out.  Information from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department describes the hike as “extremely strenuous” due to “rough terrain,’ and suggests that hikers have “experience in backcountry hiking skills.”

I had been hiking in the Lower Pecos for 20 years or so, and I said to myself, “well, it’s ALL rough terrain,” so I thought I could  do this. I made my reservation and paid my fee at Seminole Canyon State Park. Everything started fine, a lovely walk though a beautiful place. I felt good.

But when we turned down Presa Canyon itself, the nice flat canyon floor became a jumble of stones ranging in size from an Easter ham to a small Volkswagen. I wish I had thought to take a photo, but I was concentrating too hard on where to put my next footstep. Over and over again. For about six hours.

We reached Black Cave about noon, had our lunch, and studied the enigmatic rock art to be found there. Then we headed back. Four hours of watching where I put my foot, step by step, in exquisite torture.  I hurt the whole way back. Every time I put my foot down for the next step, my toe hit the end of my boot, which hit the rock. Ouch!  In addition to several blisters, I eventually lost five toenails.  I wish I had a picture of that purple horror, too, to scare you straight. Fortunately for you, I don’t.

You see, I made some poor choices about this hike. Like the socks I chose. And how much I carried on my back.  And,

Deer head skeleton under blooming Mexican buckeye tree in Presa Canyon

Deer head skeleton under blooming Mexican buckeye tree in Presa Canyon

knowing what I know now, I should have invested in different hiking boots. Even my wide-brimmed straw hat that I thought was great, turned out to snag on every limb and thorn along the way.

Another mistake was thinking I was really healthy enough to be doing this in the first place. There is a reason I was dragging at the end.  Heat, exertion, and high blood pressure.  Rock canyons become radiant stone ovens by afternoon on hot days. There was a time or two during the hike I thought I might pass out from heat stroke. I drank a lot of water, but high blood pressure gets you in the end.  I thought I was OK before I started, then Val asked me, “is your blood pressure under control in normal conditions?”  “Yes,” I said. “Well,” she said,  stating the obvious,”these are not normal conditions.” Oh. I get it now.

Fortunately, I made some good choices too. Like being reasonably fit. And taking extra moleskin along to bind those blisters. And taking my trusty hiking poles. And freezing a couple of bottles of water the night before–they were sure good in the heat of the afternoon. I even had some to share, which was good because somebody else ended up carrying my pack most of the way out.  Thank you, whoever you are.  Sorry I don’t know your name. You were galloping along so easily, and I was so far behind.

So, here’s my list of must-haves if you take this hike:

Sunscreen, of course

Chapstick

Bandana wrapped around small frozen bottle of water–wet the bandana down and wrap it around your neck in the afternoon to chill down

Baseball-style hat, possibly with neck protection

Black Cave

Black Cave

Moleskin and knife or small scissors

wool hiking socks

good fitting hiking boots

hiking poles (optional for the young and agile)

easy lunch that does not need refrigeration, like peanut butter sandwiches

one or two pieces of fruit like apple or orange for snack

Gatorade

trailmix

camera ( I only took my iphone camera because it was light.  But you may want higher resolution photos)

Bandaids (you never know when you might need first aid)

Be careful, and watch where you put your feet and hands.  Rattlers, you know. Just remember that a rescue crew would have to walk in and out four hours each way too.  I asked the designated first aid specialist with us , a big former Army type, if he would carry me out if I broke my leg.  “Yes,” he said,” but I don’t bring anesthetic.  You would hurt like hell.”  Go safely, my friends.

The Opposite of Dry is Wet

Flood waters near Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon September 20, 2013

Flood waters near Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon September 20, 2013

Seminole Canyon is known for being hot and dry. That dry desert environment leads to wonderful preservation of rock art and delicate artifacts such as basketry, sandals and twisted cordage.  But occasionally Mother Nature creates conditions for beautiful rain in this dry land. And sometimes it is just too much of a good thing.

The weekend of September 20, 2013 saw such conditions arise as a cold front moved down from the north

Weather map for September 20, 2013 from www.accuweather.com

Weather map for September 20, 2013 from www.accuweather.com

to hit warm tropical moisture from the southwest from Hurricane Manuel, which did considerable damage in Acapulco. That combination can create the “perfect storm” in the Chihuahuan Desert.  In the three days from September 19 to 21, 2013,  Seminole Canyon State Park had over five inches of rain, and the weather station Langtry 10.6 W (elevation 1623) on www.theweathercollector.com registered 4.47 inches.  In a region that generally only receives 18 inches or less of rain per year, that’s a lot.

Perhaps more importantly, upstream of Seminole Canyon, areas received from 6 to almost 8 inches of rain in the same period. This created massive run-off, that eventually drained into the canyons.  In addition, the Rio Grande rose quickly, backing more water up into canyons.  Just notice which way the water is rushing in the big picture above.

Fortunately, no damage was done to major rock art, that I know of,  since the water did not get that high.  But tours to Fate Bell Shelter were shut down for several days.

It rained hard the night of July 3, 2010 as well, again due to a stalled out tropical system.

Mile Canyon Pour-off, July 4, 2010. Bonfire Shelter nearby.

Mile Canyon Pour-off, July 4, 2010. Bonfire Shelter nearby.

Pour-offs in Mile Canyon, in Langtry, Texas, home of the famous Bonfire Shelter bison jump, rushed with brown, frothing water. The Rio Grande also rose, backing up in the short canyon and creating very dangerous conditions for wildlife, humans, and ancient debris.

The worst flood in the region in recorded history occurred in 1954, when a hurricane stalled out over the area.  More than 20 inches of rain fell in one night over Mile Canyon. The ground was already saturated from an 8-inch rain a few days before, so the water had no place to go. Catastrophic floods like this occur once or twice a century and cause changes topography of the canyonlands. As the website Texas Beyond History  (http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net) says, “Spring-fed pools become choked with gravels, new springs emerge, and walnut trees are ripped out.”  This flood also moved boulders as large as a small house at least a quarter mile downstream, and damaged rock art in Eagle Cave.  We can only image the artifacts that washed away, never to be seen again.

Mouth of Mile Canyon and Rio Grande, July 4, 2010

Mouth of Mile Canyon and Rio Grande, July 4, 2010 to the Rio Grande.

Raging water in the 1954 flood moved these large boulders at least a quarter mile

Raging water in the 1954 flood moved these large boulders at least a quarter mile.

Related Articles

Peyote Fire: Shaman of the Canyons

The sun which rises every day

The sun which rises every day

Some people have asked me about the novel I claim to be writing. I am happy to say that I have recently completed the first draft–over 86,000 words in about 19 months.  The book is tentatively called Peyote Fire, and is about the first peyote shaman.

The protagonist, Deer Cloud, is painting the stories of the Powerful Ones in a stone alcove high above the

Lower Pecos Canyonlands

Lower Pecos Canyonlands

river. His grandfather Panther Claw consecrated the alcove when Deer Cloud was a boy, especially for him to paint.  The two spent many years tracing designs on the ground to arrive at the best composition to honor the gods and preserve their greatness for generations to come. When Panther Claw dies, Deer Cloud’s life takes a dramatic turn.

The book is set in the Archaic Lower Pecos, or about 4000 years ago in the area of the confluence of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, bounded on the east by the Devil’s River. The Rain Bringer clan lives in the canyons , river banks, and uplands of this territory. There are many magnificent, brilliantly painted rock shelters that tell the stories of their gods within their lands.

Rock Art from the Archaic Lower Pecos

Rock Art from the Archaic Lower Pecos

I have used archeological reports and treatises written about the people of the Archaic Lower Pecos as a factual base for the story.  I have tried to make descriptions of everyday life as accurate as possible, given what we know.  But we do not fully know the people’s understanding of their world. As a stand-in for their undoubtedly rich religious and philosophical life, I am relying upon ethnographies of the Huichol people of Mexico, whom some suspect may be distantly related.  I’ve had to strip out every  agricultural mention in the Huichol mythologies, and other modern strains, such as cultural changes brought on by contact with the Spanish, in order to seek an Archaic core.

From these core beliefs and descriptions of Huichol ceremonies, I have constructed a fictional world view that pervades the Rain Bringers’ lives.  This world view brings meaning to their lives and explains the natural phenomena that surrounded them; the same mysteries that surround us today.

I have a list of revisions two pages long which I am working through now.  When I get that done, I will start completely over to add characterization and nuance (hopefully) to the manuscript.  I hope to have it finished and ready to shop around by next June. (Which means I’d better get to work!)

I’m not sure how it will be published yet, but I know I want an ebook version.  My son Miles, the composer and computer dude,  is writing music for the electronic book.  I may also add a bit of video of the landscape, just to set the mood.  There will also be plain, unenhanced,  paper copies, whatever publishing route I choose.

Thank you for reading my blog, and I hope you will read the book when it becomes available. Stay tuned for another year to find out.

The Great Transformer, Grandfather Fire

The Great Transformer, Grandfather Fire

Ken Kramm: Creative Naturalist

My guest today is Dr. Kenneth Kramm, former professor of ecology at Michigan Technical University and the University of Houston.  He is a Texas Master Naturalist and hosts a Facebook page on bushcraft and nature at  http://www.facebook.com/BuschcraftAndNature   and a Youtubechannel at http://www.youtube.com/user/kennethkramm?feature=mhe

Ken Kramm and friend

Ken Kramm and friend

Hi Ken. Tell us a little about your video “Prehistoric Indians of the Lower Pecos Region, Seminole Canyon, Tx.”

Seminole Canyon State Park is a wonderful park with a nice campground and interesting history.  Hopefully, the video will encourage people to visit the park and learn about the prehistoric indians who who lived here nearly 12,000 years ago.  They were attracted by the rivers, wildlife and rock shelter caves.  Guided tours of the rock shelters are particularly interesting.  Different parts of the shelters were designated for activities such as sleeping and cooking.  People slept on woven mats, which are still present in the shelters.  Over a period of 4 to 6 thousand years, the walls were decorated with pictographs.  In spite of the harsh environment, the Lower Pecos Region of Texas provides many photo opportunities for wildlife and wildflowers.

What other videos do you have on your Youtube channel?  http://www.youtube.com/user/KennethKramm?feature=mhee

My YouTube Channel includes videos on a wide range of nature-related topics 1) hiking and camping adventures (to locations such as Texas State and National Forests), 2) relaxing nature videos for meditation, 3) and wilderness survival techniques and bushcraft.   I am currently producing a video miniseries on “How To Camp Out — Advice From an American  Civil War Veteran.”   We can learn much about how to survive and thrive outdoors by following the recommendations of pioneers in the 1800s.

This one shows how to forage for dinner, including “Roly Poly Soup.” Tastes like shrimp. Honest.

 Very clever. How do you create these videos?

Topics are suggested by subscribers.  Before making a video, I research the topic using the internet, books, articles and talking with local experts.  The US Forest Service, Texas State Forest Service and Texas Master Naturalists assist with the production of many videos.    After outlining the video design, I start filming with a Canon Vixia Camcorder, point-and-shoot camera, and smart phone.  The videos are edited with Final Cut Pro X.

 You also have a Facebook page on bushcraft and nature. What is the purpose of that endeavor? http://www.facebook.com/BuschcraftAndNature

The purpose is for people to share their love of the outdoors and learn from its wisdom.  With each advance of technology, life for human beings becomes easier and better. It is now possible to talk and share experiences real-time with people from all over the world, Wow! This same technology, however, has a downside: human beings have become disconnected from the natural world. We have largely forgotten important lessons of our ancient ancestors. The “Bushcraft and Nature community” shares the best from both worlds. We use technology to communicate a our common love of the outdoors and learn from its wisdom.

Had any interesting experiences with snakes or other critters out in the wild?  

After watching sunset at Lost Maples State Park, I walked a 2-mile trail back to camp without a flashlight.  Fireflies were  numerous, so I didn’t need to turn on my flashlight to see the trail.   All of a sudden I heard awful growling /screeching.  A feral hog and her piglets were crossing the trail in front of me.  The mother decided to attack!  I was scared…. Very scarred…. I screamed, turned on the flashlight and threw it at the hogs.   They retreated.  But my heart  was pounding all the way home.

That would certainly scare me too!  Those things can be vicious.  If you had to live in a tent for the next year, where would you like lit to be?  Why?

One of the best places for year-round tent camping, in my opinion, is southern California.  The weather is moderate; food, water and shelter are readily available from nature.  And best of all the region provides unparalleled opportunities for wildlife observation and photography.

 You wouldn’t have to twist my arm very hard on that one.  Why do you believe it is important for people today to experience the natural world?

See my video on the benefits of bushcraft:

Basically

– NATURE MAKE YOU NICER: communities with more green-space have lower rates of crime and violence

–  GET A GLIMPSE OF GREEN:  hospital patients who can see green spaces from their rooms recover faster and require less pain medication;  exposure to the living world can calm the mind, improve learning and enhance intelligence

– NATURE IS THE BEST NURTURE: reduced anxiety and depression, decreased stress, increased immunity, increased energy; 50% lower diabetes risk, vitamin D production,weight loss and fitness, reduced attention deficit disorder

–  SUGGESTED DOSAGE:  Stress is relieved within 2 minutes exposure to nature, Memory and attention span improve 20% with 2 hours exposure to nature; levels of cancer fighting white blood cells increase 50 in 2 days exposure

– NATURE IS INVENTOR:  velcro is an example; hook &loop fasteners were invented after people noticed burrs sticking to clothes

I couldn’t help noticing you have an insect on your hat.  What is it?

It’s a stick insect (Order: Phasmatodea). He’s  a harmless invertebrate that feeds mostly on leaves.  They hold the record for longest insects in the world.  See Cool Facts About Stick Insects, a weird moovie – YouTube

You do something different with every video! Your videos are both informative and very inviting.  Thanks for being with us, Ken. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for sharing your love of the great outdoors with us. 

Mark Willis on Photography

Rainbow by Mark Willis

Double rainbow with lightning strike–Photo by Mark Willis

Mark Willis, archeologist and photographer

Mark Willis, archeologist and photographer

I am delighted to have Mark Willis, an expert in emerging technologies in photography and archeology, as my guest today.

This double rainbow photograph is magnificent, Mark. Tell us about it.

This image of a rainbow was taken after a storm passed through the Lower Pecos region in early April, 2013.  Right at sunset the clouds parted and this beautiful double rainbow appeared.  I took a series of bracketed shots to capture the color depth.  That also helped to capture the lightning strike that can be seen in the right side of the image.

Your pictures are amazing! How do you get such wonderful shots? 

Thanks.  If I get a nice shot is normally because I’ve take hundreds of photos and one or two are keepers.  I enjoy experimenting with various types of photography to increase my technical skills.  Lately, I’ve been playing with landscape and nighttime photography.

Lightning strike at Shumla, Texas, by Mark Willis

Lightning strike at Shumla, Texas, by Mark Willis

This one was also taken the same night of the storm mentioned previously.  To get this shot, I took dozens of  long exposures looking into the darkest part of the storm.  The long exposures allow for the lightning to be photographed and it also allows the ambient light to illuminate the landscape and hence the dramatic colors.

Stars over Bunk House at Shumla, Texas by Mark Willis

Stars over Bunk House at Shumla, Texas by Mark Willis

The night sky out at Shumla is really impressive.  Most city dwellers can’t believe it when they see how incredible the stars are.  For this photograph, I placed the Shumla Bunkhouse in the foreground to add some interest to the image. It was taken a couple of hours after sunset and with a 20 second exposure.  The light area in the lower right of the image isn’t a sunset.  It is actually the light pollution from Langtry, Texas bouncing off of low thin clouds.  This type of photography is pretty tricky because you have to guess at all of the manual settings and just hope something turns out nice.

You are well known for kite aerial photography. What is that, Mark?

Kite Arial  Photograh of archeological site by Mark Willis

Kite Aerial Photograph of archeological site by Mark Willis

It is one of the cheapest and most innovative ways to take aerial photographs. Kite Aerial Photography (KAP) was invented in the middle half of the 1800s by the French.  A camera is attached a sturdy string and lifted into the air by a large kite. One of the earliest uses of KAP was to map topographic features of the landscape for military purposes.  In much the same way, I use KAP to create highly detailed maps of archaeological sites and excavations.  I have had the privilege of conducting KAP projects all over the world.  It is my favorite type of aerial photography.

You also use drones. Could you tell us a little about that?   

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone, flying over Ecuador

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone, flying over Ecuador

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones, are the up and coming way to conduct aerial mapping projects.  Unlike KAP, the UAVs are autonomously controlled by an internal computer.  UAVs are true robots that fly themselves.  UAVs are perfect for mapping large landscapes as they can cover a much larger area than KAP in a short amount of time.  The disadvantage is the cost of the equipment.  KAP also tends to produces higher resolution images.

You recently completed an ambitious 3-D modeling project at Panther Cave. What did that entail?

The 3D modeling at Panther Cave is ground breaking.  It involved creating an extremely high resolution model from nothing more than a series of photographs.  Typically these sorts of models are made using extremely expensive and cumbersome laser scanners  The new method we used is called Structure from Motion. It is inexpensive and produces results that other techniques are not capable of.  I am excited the world gets see this site in an entirely new way.

Have you ever had any mishaps or close calls while shooting?

It wasn’t really a close call but one of the eeriest moments I had was working very deep in the rock art cave of Marsoulas in Southern France.  I was on a very steep muddy slope documenting Aurignacian era rock art with an underground river below me. My colleagues had exited the cave and I was alone with the ancient art when the generator powering our lights ran out of gas.  For several minutes I sat alone in the inky blackness listening to the slow flow of the water below me and imaging how many of our ancestors had done the same.

Your photography has taken you around the world. What are some of your favorite places?

I started backpacking the world alone when I was seventeen.  I haven’t found a favorite place yet but the more exotic the better.  I enjoy working in the Pacific at places like Palau and Kiribati but feel most at home on the left bank of the Pecos.

What drives you to do this?

Those that know me know that I work constantly.  I am either creating a new 3D modeling process, testing a new technique to document petroglyphs at night, or running an archaeological survey. Always doing something related to archaeology.  A friend of mine calls me the “James Brown of archaeology”.  Not sure if I would go that far but I get a thrill out of finding new ways to look at archaeological sites and our world in general.  It is my work and it is my passion.

This has been fascinating.  Many thanks for being with us today, Mark.  

Mark can be reached via his occasionally updated blog, http://palentier.blogspot.com/ , or on Google+https://plus.google.com/u/0/117833894683564726361